Texas Campaigns Prepare for More Uncertainty After Runoff Reset by Coronavirus

The COVID-19 outbreak has created challenges during a high-stakes Texas election cycle. - SHUTTERSTOCK
The COVID-19 outbreak has created challenges during a high-stakes Texas election cycle.
Democrats and Republicans across Texas are settling in for the new normal that is campaigning in the time of the novel coronavirus.

Not only has the pandemic upended how candidates campaign for the foreseeable future, it has also caused the May runoff election to be pushed back seven weeks, adding more uncertainty to a high-stakes election cycle in Texas. The changes impact runoffs in a slew of especially consequential races, from the U.S. Senate contest to most of the U.S. House races that national Democrats are prioritizing.

Regardless of the runoff date change, campaigns were already making adjustments. Many have canceled in-person campaigning and moved as much of their efforts online as possible. Some have reoriented their campaigns for now to focus on community service in the face of the outbreak. And a few have even stopped actively fundraising, at least online.

"I think what my team knows is that we're in a different time now than we were a couple weeks ago," Pritesh Gandhi, an Austin physician running for Congress, told a Facebook audience Sunday.

To be sure, candidates are not setting politics entirely aside, especially as Democrats move to highlight what they see as an inadequate response to the pandemic by Republicans in Washington and Texas. But for now, they are stuck in a potentially monthslong limbo.

While Gov. Greg Abbott announced Friday that the runoff would be postponed to July 14, it remains to be seen whether additional adjustments will be necessary for the election. Democrats are all but unified in arguing that the runoff postponement is not enough on its own and that Texas needs to expand voting by mail as well. Abbott has not ruled that out, though other top Texas Republicans have balked at the idea so far.

Runoffs are already low-turnout affairs, and campaign operatives are bracing for the numbers to drop even further for the new July date, especially if public health concerns persist. The extended runoff also means a longer head start for a slew of candidates in battleground races who already won their primaries earlier this month.

The state's marquee runoff is the one to determine which Democrat will challenge U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas: MJ Hegar, the former Air Force helicopter pilot, or Royce West, the longtime state senator from Dallas. Both have moved their campaigns entirely online, and Cornyn announced March 17 that he was "suspending all campaign-related activities, including fundraising, volunteer efforts and special events."

West has had the additional responsibility of responding to the outbreak in his capacity as a current elected official — not to mention one representing Dallas County, the hardest-hit part of the state.

Cornyn has given the Democrats plenty to seize on, from his comments blaming the Chinese for the virus to his running Twitter commentary on congressional negotiations over coronavirus aid. West and Hegar have responded with criticism at every turn.

"We're doing the same thing we've always been doing, which is focusing on defeating John Cornyn," Hegar spokeswoman Amanda Sherman said.

Yet campaigns seem to understand the sensitivity of full-blown politicking in the time of a pandemic. Hegar's campaign acknowledged in a Thursday email that "this is not an easy time for so many" and gave supporters the opportunity to opt out of fundraising emails for the next few weeks.

In some other races, there has been no shortage of tension over fundraising tactics amid the pandemic. While U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, R-Austin, announced March 13 that he would "not be soliciting campaign contributions" through the end of the month, his Democratic challenger, Wendy Davis, has kept up a steady stream of fundraising emails, including some highlighting Roy's vote against a coronavirus relief package.

The Roy-Davis matchup is set for November, but that is not the case in several other battleground races where one side has already picked a nominee — and the other still has a runoff that will now drag on for another seven weeks. That lopsided dynamic is unfolding not only in the U.S. Senate election, but also in places like Texas House District 138, which is key to Democrats' push to flip the lower chamber.

Lacey Hull won the Republican primary earlier this month in HD-138, where Rep. Dwayne Bohac, R-Houston, is retiring. But there remains a Democratic primary runoff featuring Akilah Bacy and Jenifer Rene Pool.

Bacy said she was undeterred by Hull's new additional advantage.

"Of course you don’t want anyone to have a head start, but I don’t think it’s enough to change what we see in the numbers, what we hear on the doors," Bacy said. "I still believe we will be victorious in November."

But candidates like Bacy still have to get through their runoffs, which they entered with varying degrees of momentum depending on how they fared in the primary. Some, like Bacy, came close to winning outright, normally a helpful talking point as they look to consolidate support in the overtime round. But now their opponents have seven more weeks to try to turn the tide in their favor.

One prominent example of the battle for runoff momentum is in the 24th Congressional District, where Kim Olson and Candace Valenzuela are in a Democratic primary runoff for the seat held by retiring Rep. Kenny Marchant, R-Coppell, a national Democratic target. Olson finished first in the primary with 41% of the vote, 11 percentage points ahead of Valenzuela, which Olson has been emphasizing in fundraising emails and Facebook ads.

Olson and Valenzuela were among the Democratic candidates this week who seized on GOP Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick's comments suggesting grandparents would be willing to risk their health to save the economy amid the pandemic.

"Don't mess with Texas grandmas, Dan Patrick," said Olson, a grandma herself, while Valenzuela called on the GOP nominee for the seat, Beth Van Duyne, to disavow Patrick's comments.

Van Duyne, for her part, already won her primary and has paused campaigning to focus on helping vulnerable North Texans as the coronavirus bears down on the region.

Patrick is not the only top Texas Republican who has given Democratic runoff candidates an opening to provide a contrast. Several of the contenders have been outspoken against Attorney General Ken Paxton's declaration that the state ban on elective procedures during the pandemic includes most abortions.

Paxton's move prompted one Republican in a congressional runoff, Kathaleen Wall, to rejoice Tuesday, saying the virus "will save more lives this week than it takes!" Wall is in a runoff for the seat of retiring U.S. Rep. Pete Olson, R-Sugar Land, and Sri Preston Kulkarni has already secured the Democratic nomination in the nationally targeted 22nd District.

Both Kulkarni and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee issued statements slamming Wall's abortion remark, with the latter saying her "offensive comments are a reminder why districts like TX-22 are moving away from Republicans across Texas and the rest of the country."

The outbreak is most consuming for some candidates whose professions put them on the front lines of the outbreak. Gandhi, one of the Democrats running to challenge U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, is helping lead the pandemic response at the East Austin health center where he serves as associate chief medical officer. He is holding virtual town halls with his campaign supporters every Sunday, discussing the latest on the virus.

Gandhi's runoff opponent, Mike Siegel, is raising money for a Brenham food pantry after The New York Times reported that a mother from the city is skipping meals to make sure her six children can eat during the outbreak.

Other runoff candidates are helping to respond to the virus as current elected officials. In addition to West, that group includes Troy Nehls, the Fort Bend County sheriff who faces Wall in the runoff for Olson's seat.